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tv   Charlie Rose  Bloomberg  March 14, 2015 10:00pm-11:01pm EDT

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♪ >> from our studios in new york city, this is "charlie rose." charlie: eugene o'neill is one of the greatest playwrights of the century. he has been called the father of american theater, paving the way
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for arthur miller, tennessee williams, and tony kushner. his life was hard. his mother was a morphine addict and out the hall at. o'neill channeled life into his work. "the iceman cometh" is one of his most powerful place. -- plays. he describes as a big comedy that doesn't stay funny very long. it focuses on the regulars of a new york city saloon who have numbed themselves with alcohol and delay acting on their dreams. the play was revived in chicago. that production is currently at the brooklyn academy of music. it is enacted by a cast that is not likely to be better this season. joining me now are two tony award-winning actors. nathan lane and brian dennehy. i'm pleased to have them at the table. welcome. nathan: thank you.
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always a pleasure. charlie: you saw this production was going to take place. you said, this is right for me. you notified the director? charlie: it started with ken and he said, you cannot just talk about these great part spirit you had to do them. you will learn a great deal. it doesn't matter what anyone else says. and then i read an interview in "variety" with brian. they were talking about revisiting "the iceman cometh." they had done it in 1990 together. very successful. charlie: is there a character he hasn't played? [laughter]
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nathan: when i heard them discussing this, i wrote an e-mail to bob even though i didn't know him well to say, i would love to play hickey. here is my reasoning. fortunately, he responded positively. we got together and started discussing how we can do it. charlie: how do you see hickey? nathan: when i read the play when i was a kid and got a collection of eugene o'neill plays and i read "the iceman cometh" i was drawn to the character hickey because of the description it sounded a little like me. he describes him as short and roly-poly and with a button nose and a twinkle in his eye.
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he always writes long descriptions of characters. rather too specific for everyone to live up to. [laughter] what he created, i thought and what i was saying in the e-mail, it is defined by jason peters he -- jason robards, he was the gold standard. 1956 when they did the revival off-broadway. to find who that character is. it was much darker than the original production in the 1940's. he brought this mischievous benevolence and otherworldly quality to it. and i was saying to bob wouldn't it be interesting taking what o'neill has said about him? the notion is, he loves these guys. just as he ultimately says he killed his wife and it was an act of mercy, out of love, he
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had come to help them and change their lives and bring them peace. unfortunately, he feels feeling -- the only way to do that is for them to kill their illusions, their pipedreams as they are often called. so i thought it has to come out of that. it has to come out of love. not that he is trying to destroy them, but he is trying to help them. in a way, that is more disturbing. the fact that it is a joy-ish thing and is so offputting that this person that they love so much is driving them to do this thing. and for him, he is in a semi-delusional state. he feels this is the last act which will, i don't think will bring him absolution, but it is a way to prove to them and to himself that what he did was right. ultimately, his pipe dream is that he did this out of love.
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and that -- charlie: he is doing this for them. nathan: yeah. charlie: is this a different hickey then you conceived of him? brian: yeah. every great role it is interesting. when i started walking, -- working, all i knew was jason along with everyone else. when we started rehearsal, almost 30 years ago, i'm just going to steal jason robards. [laughter] it was not so easy to do. i finally realized after coming with bad interpretations, i said, i can't do that. i came up with the happiest guy in the world. this sunny salesman of death.
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big smiles all the time. big hearty laugh. slowly becomes obvious to the audience and the people on stage that he is selling something that is not quite as advertised. charlie: but is he selling it out of love? brian: sure. it is an interesting discussion that goes on constantly with people like ourselves who deal with the play and the characters, just how crazy is he? crazy enough to know exactly what he is doing in terms of embracing his craziness? or is he not crazy? nathan: he sort of compartmentalizes all these things. he knows he is going to turn himself in. he knows that people he knows what he did is wrong -- technically. [laughter] charlie: technically? nathan: shooting your wife in
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the back of the head in the middle of the night is technically wrong. he wants to be punished. so it was always what he wanted from his wife. but she kept for giving him. this unhealthy, codependent relationship where she keeps forgiving him and he does love her -- that is a theme of the play. how does love and hate coexist in a person? brian: the only way he can stop her from forgiving him is to make sure she is dead. otherwise, she would forgive him. pull the trigger. i forgive you. [laughter] nathan: it is an unraveling. it is -- in the fourth act when he famously -- to prove that he
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was right, he recounts his life story. leads up to the night of the murder. as he is going along, he wasn't planning on telling the story, but he has to. he is driven to do this, to prove to them. these revelations start happening. it is like a therapy session. tell me your life story. you start. you start talking about things you didn't expect to talk about. he slowly starts to unravel as he is revealing more and more. you see his own self-loathing and shame of what he did to her. he finally convinced himself that that was the answer. it is like a story in "the new york post." [laughter] andy would say, -- and you would
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say, can you believe this happened? it did. we are human. without a doubt he was right. it was prophetic. charlie: that was 10 years ago. nathan: yes. it took a while to get me to chicago. look, i instigated the whole thing. so, fortunately it was a huge success in chicago, which led to us doing it again. the perfect venue, the beautiful harvey theater. and an extraordinary company of actors. it is a remarkable group of people. i think that is what is making this so special. but yes, it has lived up to those expectations and more. charlie: you want more? nathan: sure.
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who wouldn't? i know there are certain -- look, anyone in show business, there are certain preconceptions and we think we know them because of one or two things they did that were successful. that is the person i know. at my age, i'm told i have more to offer and wanted to challenge myself. i wanted to do it with bob and brian. i knew that was a way to do it. charlie: it is a mark of brian that he moves through these roles and he knew he was the right age for slade. brian: yes. he is referring to my british system. the brits start out playing a young man par and then moving up as they get older. i guess that is true. i feel comfortable with slade,
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especially since he sits. he doesn't try to keep the circulation moving. it is an interesting and complicated part. in many ways it is as complicated if not more so than hickey because -- although hickey has all of the hard lifting to do, larry has some stuff to work out, especially with the kid. it is a similar situation, a parallel track. in larry's case, he finds out that the real generous thing to do is to make sure that this kid kills himself. we're are talking o'neill world here. charlie: a dark world. brian: very much so.
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what is interesting is the darkness of it. it was written at about the same time he was writing a family play. it was apparently an ordeal for him. very difficult in california in that house. he wrote a letter to a friend in new york. i have got to stop working on the play. it is much too complicated. i'm suffering. i have to write something that makes me laugh every day. [laughter] and that was of the iceman cometh. nathan: he is at a point in his life in his early 20's and he attempted suicide. that and the golden swan had a back room called the hell hole and these guys saved his life. a character based on -- there was a scottish reporter who saved his life in the attempted suicide. i think that was always in the back of his head to write this
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play about these men, most of the characters were people he knew except for hickey. did you know he was reading nietzsche? carrying around the birth of tragedy. yeah. obviously influenced by other plays. by the wild duck. nietzsche was a huge influence. charlie: did you do all this insight into o'neill after you got the part or were these things you had been curious in all along and have been studying? nathan: when i knew i was going to do it the year before, i started doing research about the play. charlie: you started in 1973 two -- in 1973 doing your first or o'neill character. brian: yeah, throwing those
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numbers at me. the first or o'neill play i did i think was 1973 at the quake theater with bill hickey. i did the c plays with phil. wonderful character. tremendous guy. had one little problem -- he had trouble learning his lines. they were these two guys at sea. one was dying. they had been buddy for years. we go into this tiny room. 25 people watching. he would say, wasn't i talking about those women on the other, the other, on the shore. what was the name of that? rio de janeiro. remember that one? what was her name? consuelas?
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i had to give him every line. [laughter] what was that restaurant? and then we get the curtain call. of course they scream for him. but i'm doing my part and his part. [laughter] nathan: i like the other version of that. an actress worked with an old british actor who had difficulty remembering his line speed when -- lines and when he would go up he would politely turned to her and smile and say, so, how is your father? [laughter] it was all on her. she talked a lot about her father in that play. how is your father? brian: there was an actor the first time we did this. nathan: this is good. brian: ron had a checkered
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career. spent a little bit of time in prison. i think 17 years. but bob took a chance on him. and ron, when he realized what he had taken on, said to the cast, i have got to have an escape mechanism. so when i am talking, and i have these speeches, if i say, oh boy, i know the line. it is there someplace. but i'm going to say, oh boy. be ready. if i say, oh boy, oh boy, we may skip a little line. [laughter] if i say it three times, it's every man for himself. [laughter] charlie: they say to do o'neill is tough, like climbing mount everest.
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nathan: who says that? charlie: do you think it is true? brian: of course it is. charlie: what does that mean? why is it true? nathan: he is asking you to go with him. he is very brave, when he is -- what he is writing about. he is asking questions and big emotions. some people would call it operatic. but it is -- he is asking you all of us, and particularly hickey in the fourth act to go to the most personal of places and it is inescapable. if it is going to work, you have to go with him and be as brave as he is in the writing. you have to expose yourself in a way that it is really difficult
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and personal and it is like diamond cutting. it is delicate. you have to expose yourself in a way that is difficult. we have talked about that challenge of doing it every night. john slattery came the other night and he asked, how do you do this every night? how do you get there? you just try. you don't always get to the top. that is the challenge. yeah, that is your agent. [phone ringing] your agent regrets telling that last story, send it your letters to brian dennehy. [laughter] everything ok? time for the medication? brian: wait until i get a hold of you. nathan: there you go. you know that you are only human.
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you are relying on many things. charlie: do you know why you get there some nights and why you don't? nathan: why you get into the zone? charlie: you said some nights you cannot get there. nathan: yes. sometimes you see where this zone is and you get there more technically. that, i don't know why. it is not science. it is human chemicals. as much as you prepare sometimes you are in a very specific moment, a quiet moment, and someone in the audience goes -- [mimicks loud coughing] it could throw you. [laughter] brian: or they go -- [mimicks yawning]
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nathan: that is what live theater is about. you have to -- it is about keeping a large theater people -- a large group of people from coughing. it is about concentration and focus. charlie: did you get prepared for this more than anything you have ever done? nathan: without question. charlie: because it was a leap? nathan: a huge leap for anyone. a huge degree of difficulty that is up there. brian: the other thing to is he is not the most adept writer of phrases. he will back up on himself on a phrase. it does not come out as easily as it could. a famous critic for the new yorker back in the 1940's was
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the curse of a lot of playwrights. always said the same thing about o'neill as she did about others, that they were not good writers, but great writers. meaning that they were not particularly facile with the language and the characters and the verbs in the nouns. in a way, for example, let's say updike was. charlie: they were great at understanding the human condition? brian: they insisted on going to the deepest, darkest parts. arthur miller who i was privileged to work with talked about the differences between a lot of these playwrights. he always said that o'neill was the deepest diver. he was not interested in -- he was interested in the soul. charlie: is that the reason you have done so much?
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8-9 characters. brian: i find it interesting. it has been my great fortune to do a lot of parts. o'neill parts. and to suddenly discover yourself in a place where you are digging away at a very fundamental part of your own being and you realize if i keep doing this i could do myself a psychic injury -- charlie: but you can't do it well unless you do that. nathan: that is what it is about. if you don't, it is disappointing. it is frustrating to you as an actor as well. he is the american shakespeare. and this language you are
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talking about, i love his language, this play in particular. but you do you -- you do need it to know how to handle that amount of language. brian: he repeats himself. once to repeat himself. people say he says the same thing over and over again. that is not true. he is repeating himself for a reason. he is a teacher. he wants you to hear it and again and again. and maybe that whole thing. and people say we have got to take this out, they are missing the point. that is the way he wants it. nathan: it is like music. a variation on a theme that he comes back to and changes it just a little bit. and you see why he has changed it and where the character's head is going when he changes the language. it is fascinating. a thrilling challenge. brian: a huge challenge.
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the man gave birth turning his mother into a morphine addict. and she stayed one. charlie: was it difficult? brian: yes. very interesting device here. the father refused to hire a good doctor for eugene's imminent birth. so they use the hotel doctor. the guy was terrified, he had not insisted with a birth. she was in great pain. he apparently tore her a little bit and overwhelmed her with morphine. turned her into a morphine addict. i guess that's what you make a -- how you make a nobel prize winner.
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turn your mother into a junkie. charlie: did she remained that way for the rest of her life? brian: all of this stuff was his life. his brother died roaring in the hospital from alcoholism at the age of 37. couldn't even walk anymore on his feet. there is a tremendous amount of pain. what he did to his kids. all of it ended in these extraordinary words. dealing with those offense and a -- those events and doing other things. charlie: i hate to ask this, but is there one of the three that you prefer? brian: there is one that i love that is not necessarily regarded as one of his great plays. it is a play not about huge terrible passions and events but it's about a little guy who has screwed himself up and
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refuses to admit it. and his life is full of minor injuries bruises, and cuts. that is hughley. i love playing him. it is not massive pain. he is a little guy who thinks his life has been worth it and successful and as he talks about his life we realize what a tiny, small, disaster it has been. not a big one. charlie: a death of 1000 cuts? brian: 80% of the population. charlie: they had been living an illusion of some kind? brian: still living it. charlie: you think that is 80% of the population we know?
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brian: i was raised in an irish family. i have seen a few deathbeds. that look and feeling of, was this ride worth it? just recently in fact. that is what hughie is. a life adding up to 40 or 50 years of certainty. knowledge of who he was. what he could do. what his chances were. and failing at every single thing. charlie: iceman, it was said that this was his role as a catalyst. do you think that? nathan: yes. not just as a catalyst for the characters in the play, before
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-- but for the audience. this is a confrontational play. as much as he experimented in his early career with greek tragedy, more stately mansions in the south or whatever it might have been, this was really an experiment, and emotional marathon that goes on for close to five hours. he wanted the audience to feel trapped. he wanted them to suffer with the people on stage. charlie: make it uncomfortable. nathan: and the audiences that come, you feel that. people say to me, more than any other production, they feel this is more confrontational. you do start to think about your own life and your own pipe dreams and illusions and what is true and what isn't. they go back there. charlie: but in the end they hang onto those.
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he says, you have been insane this entire time. harry wants to be off the hook. he starts to say, i can't let you get away with it -- he sees him start to shrink in front of him. from my point of view, he is
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giving him and all of them the gift back of going back to their illusions. he says, yes. i've been insane the entire time i have been here. it also allows him to go back to his own pipe dream of his love for evelyn and what he did out of love. brian: and not get executed. [laughter] nathan: i don't think that. that is your theory. i think he is beyond that at some point. brian: i admit to mr. lane's posit. i don't think o'neill wanted it to be that way. being as dark an irishman as i am, i suspect the character says, yes, officer. take me to jail. i want to be executed -- tonight, preferably. maybe there is something crazy about him. nathan: i don't agree. charlie: you reject this? nathan: yes. he wants to be punished. he wants to be punished. the fact is his version of love growing up was his father used
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to beat him because he was bad. you are a bad kid. he would go out and come home and be beaten. the only person who didn't was evelyn, his wife, who loved him since they were teenagers. she saw in him i guess the potential to be good and bad and happy. the word happy comes up so often. all i want is for you to be happy. happy. she is going to make him happy. you do start to question what happy means. it is said so often. charlie: the play is exhilarating like a cold shower. [laughter] nathan: well, yes. a long, cold shower. [laughter] brian: there nothing less exhilarating about a long, cold shower.
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after a while, it just gets cold. i think you can overanalyze all of this stuff. o'neill was onto something every time he wrote a play. this is a great mystery. he deals with deep subjects. self-delusion. how much self-delusion -- nathan: and self recognition. charlie: the terror of self-recognition. it is so terrible and terrifying to back away from it. brian: and clings to self-delusion. charlie: truth is painful. nathan: if you need to be drunk to get through it, have a drink. brian: sure. nathan: in some ways he advocates drinking. charlie: without o'neill we would have no miller? nathan: without question.
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brian: the one writer i suggest you talk to at length about this is kushner. charlie: tony kushner. brian: tony kushner is a huge fan of o'neill in the best sense of the word here he understands him so completely. he has written some wonderful monographs.
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[video clip] >> i think if you look at this obsession he has with illusions and dreams and the way he talks about america and the hollow dream of it won't be fulfilled what this country does to people's dreams, i think it makes the theater the perfect medium for somebody who is as heartbroken about disillusionment. he couldn't reconcile himself that there is -- he can reconcile himself. everything is finally alive. i think the theater is the perfect medium for somebody who is as grief stricken as o'neill was. nathan: he has written a screenplay about this period when he was living as a young man amongst these -- his youth when he attempted suicide. brian: about "the iceman cometh." nathan: yes. this period. 1939. it wasn't produced until '46. he felt the audiences wouldn't accept it until after the war. brian: they didn't accept it then.
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but then a year after he died, almost to the day, o'neill opened the play and opened the whole banquet of o'neill works. that is what happened. o'neill's plays were recognized for the works of genius that they were. they have been done everywhere by everybody ever since. the irony being of course that he died in obscurity a year before. charlie: but then it opened it up. brian: everything changed. charlie: the thing you're most proud of? brian: i feel strongly about "salesman." charlie: miller. brian: there are elements of
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that play i haven't really explored because they were so close to whatever sensitive -- charlie: places of yourself? brian: that i couldn't go. i just had to play them. interesting thing about "salesman" and knowing there's something special about that play for me, i had forgotten all of it. it is a deliberate act. i don't know why. it means something. i don't know why it means something either. o'neill, i can approach rationally and think about it. feelings of hughley and other things i have done more than once. but "salesman," i don't think i can go back. there has been some process
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inside of me that has removed so much of my understanding of that part from it. i don't question it. i don't worry about it. i don't try to get in its way. it is just is what is. that play was more profound to me then i'm prepared to deal with. charlie: this is not an illusion. it is some rawness that touched you. brian: yeah. i can remember laying awake night after night doing it. i did this play exhaustively. it seemed to be the more exhausted i got, the better it was. like i say, i have put that over there. charlie: and won't go back.
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brian: i'm not ready to look at it yet. nathan: it is something that we have talked about with joe, a director, who had wanted me to do it. i didn't feel i would hold enough. hoffman did it. he was 44-45. it is hard. i saw a lot of them. i saw dustin hoffman. i remember seeing that television version. one of the reasons i wanted to do this play with them -- maybe it was my age, but it was the first time i had seen the play. it is about a father.
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the first time i thought and thought, i understood what was happening. i was seeing inside someone's head. almost called inside my head. you could see the breakdown and what was happening to him in society and all of those other things. it was very personal and raw at that time. i was so affected. i remember going back at think it was the highest compliment i could have paid you. i went back to see him. i started to talk to him. i broke down crying. i couldn't speak. charlie: you went backstage. nathan: yeah. i couldn't find the words. i just broke down crying. nathan: what did i say? brian: brian, are you having any fun?
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[laughter] i remember looking at you and you broke into tears. nathan: yeah. charlie: do you understand what that was about? nathan: i'm sure it had to do with my father and the lack of a father. my father died when i was 11. he was an alcoholic. basically drink himself to death. i don't know. that play is a powerful one. i think at some point i would love to tackle it. brian: see if he could do it before i kick the bucket. [laughter] nathan: all right. we'll try to coordinate our schedules around that. [laughter] charlie: anything else on a bucket list you have about theater?
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brian: i don't know if i have the time. i have this ongoing flirtation with lear. however, it is a long conversation. i want to do it, but i want to do it in a certain way. i think i want to sneak up on it with endgame, which is a version of lear. beckett, of whom i love, makes it so obvious that so much has been taken away from this man already.
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the thing about lear is that i have seen very good performances lately, all of which will be nameless. i realize one thing -- it requires a towering performance. it does not good enough to do lear good enough. it is about the most important subject of all, which is death and dying. we are all dying. no matter what age we are. here is a man who has had everything and assumes he will always have everything and suddenly life begins to slip away in absurd ways, tragic ways. whatever. what is required is a majestic mindless, humorous, and towering performance of life being ripped away. having said that -- you say to yourself, do you want to climb into that arena? part of me does.
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charlie: ego? brian: i have two kick it and see whether i incapable of it. take on a part that i know is so demanding and so huge -- it scares me. bob and i a long time ago said we are only good and do things that scare each other, but that one really scares me. [laughter] charlie: i have seen a lot of them. brian: that is not enough. not enough. charlie: do you wish you had done this 10 years ago? could you have done it?
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or is it one of those things it couldn't have happened without things in my life to do it? nathan: i think so. the latter. it took this amount of time. to reach a point in your life -- you are questioning not unlike the playwrights we are talking about. you are questioning why am i here? what am i supposed to do with this? i have this success. am i an artist? am i going to push myself further? i could entertain people for the rest of my life and that is a lovely life. marty short once said something about -- the funniest man in the world -- charlie: you think so? nathan: i do pretty he said, people don't want to see me stretching and see the monkey being introspective. they want the monkeys to be
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monkeys. it made me laugh. believe me, marty has within him as well as being a brilliant comic also can be a brilliant actor and has shown that. charlie: but does he want to? nathan: i think he is perfectly doing what he wants, when it happens. if something interesting came along, he can do many things. mostly i think he enjoys making people laugh. i said to myself, i think i might be one of the introspective monkeys. charlie: introspective monkeys. didn't olivier say he wanted to do comedy? nathan: nathan detroit. my old part. if you ever saw him in an
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interview where he imitated sam goldman beautifully and you thought i would've loved to see him playing nathan detroit -- brian: he did "entertainer." a tragic version. there are times when it was very funny. the problem with handling that part was he couldn't allow himself to be any good. he is playing a lesser entertainer. nathan: famously he was asked, how did he achieve that mediocrity in singing and dancing? he just said, i did the best i could. [laughter] he famously did "oedipus." he played mr. puff, the critic. he was testing himself in that way a long time ago.
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i think that is what happens. it has come at a great time in my life to explore this side of myself. it has been thrilling. it has been life-changing to come back to ken branagh. not that i don't enjoy comedy and going back to terrence mcnally. i think one thing helps the other. it is like when you do stage and you go back to tv or film. one enhances the other in some ways. having done this affects your other works as well.
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charlie: do you put a higher value on drama than comedy? nathan: no, i think that would be wrong. comedy is always concerted the poor second cousin to big, old drama and tragedy. as if comedy was easy. we know it is not. and to do it well is difficult. and make it look effortless. if it is done in that way, people don't take it as seriously. charlie: robert said about you imagine them use would be a beautiful, young, gorgeous woman. and i ended up with brian dennehy. brian: he made me wear that wig that night. i was wondering. [laughter] we had coffee. he said, you and i are going to do all these things together. he didn't have a job. i had a job.
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i listened for a long time. i realized this is going to be something we were going to do. he finished up by saying, we are always going to do things we are not sure we can do. also something else we did. charlie: things that made you scared. brian: even more than that. we are always scared.
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if it is something where you are saying -- i don't even know if i belong in this ball game, i'm really taking a chance here. charlie: i don't know, but i think? brian: left maybe a little too late in terms of age and strength and my brain and so forth. although that might be an excuse. whatever i do, i have got to think about the next several months and find a place. we will see. we will see. charlie: thank you for coming. nathan: thank you for having us. charlie: "the iceman cometh" is at the brooklyn academy of music. it will be there through this sunday. nathan: it is sold out. charlie: you cannot go. i'm sorry. [laughter] you have missed something very special if you cannot go. thank you for joining us. see you next time.
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